Mindy Unsworth - Some Words About My Best Friend (1)
Me and her, we're just like that. She's the bee's knees; the cat's ankles. She's the best. Seriously. Me and her, we've been friends almost forever, and I can count on her, thick and thin, rain or shine. She's like my shadow and my second self, she's my better and worse half all rolled into one. Sometimes id, sometimes super-ego; but mostly just there.
And that's challenging.
Because I know. I'm a challenge. It's not easy to know how to react when your best friend is dancing around trying to shake off invisible little hard-shelled pebbles-with-teeth that are gnawing at the hem of her skirt. Some people would be embarrassed, or pretend they're with somebody else. Whereas Tracey, she just waits for that to blow over. She walks the long way with me if I need to avoid goblins, or six-headed snakes, ravenous unicorns, or the cursed side of a particular street. She doesn't even roll her eyes.
Some days you've just got your hands full, there's rifts in the veil between this world and three of the others – big things, sliding across the sky, brimming over with winged halksies, spewing 2000 degree silver gases – and there's clicksies escaped from who-knows-where, mad-hungry and crawling around in the gutter looking for human flesh. Days like that: you need someone who's by your side, who gets you as much as anyone can get you, who'll sit down at Lolo's and drink a milkshake with you and remind you of the ordinary things, who'll make everything just seem like it's okay.
I try to do my part. Friendship's a two-way street.
We hang out in her attic and she tells me about her mother, about her dad, and her stepmum. She lies on her back, looking up at the rafters, looking at the bora holes, and the bits where the rats have chewed, and she just talks. It's like the ocean, waves rolling one by one over the sand, full of calm and reassurance, even if she's talking about the tough shit, even when she's angry or hurt.
So she tells me about her mother. Some new thing she's into, her next Great Idea.
She tells me about the garden she's going to set up. Tracey's mum, she's got a site all figured out, a little stretch of forest that's for sale for more than anyone in her family can really afford. And still. When she plants it up with flowers and fruits and vegetables. When it glows with herbs. She'll do this: she'll charge admission, for walking in it, for the freedom to take what you need – pick your own everything. Yearly memberships. Donations. Sponsorships.
“But it is nuts?” Tracey says, “it is insane?”
“They'll rip her off. They'll strip mine the good stuff, they'll leave a few brussel sprouts and a couple of dodgy parsnips. She'll be losing money hand over fist.”
“You gotta give people a little bit of credit.”
She looks up, turns her head eerily further than most people's necks turn.
“All the people?”
I think about it a moment. “No. Maybe not.”
I met Tracey in a shopping mall, about twelve years ago.
We were both small, surrounded by giants. And we were both lost.
Which is fate. Which has to be fate. Because what's the chance that two little four-year old girls get lost in the same mall, on the same day, and just happen to wander into each other while each one is wailing and trying to find her mother.
Tracey was my opposite. A dark-haired little girl in pale clothes, in a gingham-lace dress, with beige tights, and soft-pink shoes. Me, all blond, all bright in reds and blues – like maybe it would make me stand out a bit more, make me harder to misplace. Joke's on Mum. She could have put me in flashing neon, I would still have found a way to slip beneath her radar, to go chasing the next shiny thing, the next weird thing that the rest of my family just couldn't see.
I saw this little girl, standing out in the open there, crying, biting on the tips of her fingers. As lost as I was.
“Hello,” I wobbled up beside her.
She stared at me.
“Hello,”I said, curiosity distracting me from my own separation from my mother.
“Hello.” She spoke tentatively, as if not trusting I was really there, or not trusting that I was what I was. Another child, or some horror in the shape of another child. Because children are sharp-witted little things, who know what they see isn't necessarily what is. They have a healthy respect for what goes bump in the night. Then they grow, and lose it, they grow out of their good sense... But I digress.
I asked her: “What's your name?”
“Me too. Wanna play?”
I gestured at a sculpted wall. “Can you climb?”
We climbed. Some old ladies came to lift us down, put us safely on the ground. They probably called mall security, set in motion the search for our mothers, while the two of us just sat by a wall, ate the chocolate pieces the women had given us, and talked.
“Do you like jam?” she said.
“Yes. And do you believe in fairies?”
“And goblins. And dragons. And elves?”
“Believe in them real, not pretend?”
I sat back and watched something climbing on a wall. Something winged, five-legged, with little balls of light strung along its back. “Me too.”
She rests her head on a box of old curtains. “I have to go see Dad next weekend.”
Mixed feeling go circling and diving and colliding inside me. Her mixed feelings that I've just sort of absorbed, and mine. It's hard to imagine having Mum and Dad not in the same house, not sharing a life, not sharing me.
“I have to stay all weekend.”
I shrug. “He tries, right?”
“Too hard.” She tilts her head at me. “He's so... jolly. Always trying to make things exciting.”
“So milk it. Most kids would.”
“That gets old.”
“I just... I want...”
“Like you got.”
“You heard yourself say that, right?”
She laughs. The world feels momentarily lighter. “I heard it. But the least normal thing about your life is you. Your Mum and Dad are okay.”
“Sure. So are yours.”
“Three hundred miles apart.”
“That is normal these days.”
These days. Like we've lived enough days to even have these days.
“It'll just be all twenty questions. What am I doing with my life? How's school? Who are all my friends? I feel like I'm recounting my day, from waking up to going to bed, minute by minute. And its like he's looking for something in there, like he's panning for gold. Like there's something he wants me to say.”
It's not all bad. He'll be taking her for ice-cream, he'll be going to the park with her, feeding ducks, looking at flowers. It'll all be age-appropriate for a kid about two years younger. Because it's always so far between visits. Because her dad is really busy, and he travels, and his work is important, and he has his 'other family' to consider, to live for, as well.
“And there's her.” Tracey says. “There'll be more of her.”
“She'll be perfect. She'll be immaculate. She'll have her hair all salon-fresh, and her perfect make-up. And she'll be beaming, baking cookies, trying to make me feel welcome.”
“Shut up. She is a bitch. She's competing, that's what it is. She doesn't give a crap about me, she just wants to show me that she's better, that she's a better woman for him, and Mum's not as good. That Dad traded up. That's what it's about.”
I've never met her. I don't know if this is fair. I really don't.
“And at night. He asks me about Mum. He wants to know everything. He can't stop asking how she is. And I can't mention Geoff. Can I?”
I'm not sure.
“If you saw that look in his eyes. No. I can't mention Geoff.”
“Sooner or later...”
She sighs, she clasps her hands up against her collarbone. “Sooner or later. And anyway, Mindy, you know I'm going to miss you.”
She wasn't always cool and sophisticated. You look at her now – can't fault her. She knows what everything's about. But she had her awkward stage, when she was gawky, and her teeth were odd sizes, growing in a little bit crooked. Developing late. Hair in two braids. Twelve.
For a couple of years she became a target.
And it's one of those things. Why that girl? Why now? When and why and how do they know to move on and pick on some other girl next? These are things I don't got answers for.
At the time I was angry. At the time I wanted to go kick those girls in the shins. Go shove them through a portal into one of the less tame worlds, something wild, somewhere the wind just doesn't stop blowing. A place that hurts your ears, and you lose all sense of time and direction, where you can't balance...
We'd cross the road.
They'd cut us off at the next corner.
There were four of them, the main culprits, the ones who really liked to get their teeth into Tracey. A redhead. A girl with tight curls. A couple of pale blond stick figures who could have been sisters, both of them ice-blue eyed, all wearing their uniforms like hookers – and I mean it, skirts hitched up almost to their bum, shirts hanging open, knotted at the midriff. Non-regulation shoes.
They were thirteen. Maybe fourteen.
“How are you today, Tracey? How's your Mum and Dad?”
Divorce halfway along. Bitter recriminations, cold shoulders. They knew it.
“Going to school today, Tracey? Or going to court?”
“Nice little dress you got on, hides your knees.”
Don't respond, I'd think.
But frustration boiled over. “It's a uniform!”
“Well it looks... you. It's very, very you.”
“Saw your Dad in town with a blond the other day.”
“Do you know what he does with her, Tracey?”
“Have they told you how Daddies and their girlfriends make a baby?”
Can I kick them? I asked it with my eyes. Let's do it.
She'd shake her head. Keep her eyes down. Drag me away.
She'd sit in the old car park and cry. She'd sit there with me next to her. We'd be late to school, and no-one said anything.
Those same girls talk to her now like all's well, like it never happened. Like they owe her nothing. And I know that's the way of things, but I still want to push them through the most unforgiving portal I can come up with.
She's a teacher, Tracey's stepmum. Glamorous. I've seen her photo. And I guess its not that hard to know why Tracey's Dad went head over heels for her.
And she's not the reason they separated. She's not the blond the bitch squad identified in the centre of the divorce. That was just talk, just spite – maybe a real blond, maybe just a way to taunt an enemy who'd never earned their hate.
I have to be careful not to think too much about all their hair falling out.
Sozarra. That's her name.
“She can't even have a proper name, can she?” Tracey says. “She has to do everything fancy andexotic. Do you know what she made for dinner?”
I'm biting. “Okay, what?”
“It's like this chicken lasagne, but she makes it with half-chicken, half-turkey, and then the pasta's mixed up with ricotta and parsnip, and it's the fresh stuff, that comes in sheets, and the sauce is a full of minced up olives and sun-dried tomatoes and all this crap...”
“You're making me hungry.”
She dismisses that with a wave of her hand.
“No really, starving.” I'm disloyal, I'm a traitor, because I'm thinking that just sounds so fucking delicious...
“But she can't just cook up some chops and mashed potatoes. We can't have bloody sausages!”
Does she want me to start chewing on my own arm?
“I'm just saying, she's pretentious.”
Well, maybe. I sometimes imagine she became a teacher because she wants the girls in her class to look up to her. She keeps the glamour turned on at school, wears the pencil skirts and heels, and does her make-up just right, a necklace strung just below her collar, matching earrings. Does she want these girls, aged ten and eleven, just gawping with admiration, going home and telling their mothers: “I want to be like Miss Anderson when I grow up?”
And Tracey says: “You should hear what Mum has to say about her.”
Me and Tracey.
Down by the river.
And we have our jeans rolled up to our knees and our bare feet dangled in the water, playing in the mud with our toes. A distant warning in my head that I think has come from my father, something about broken glass and razor blades and used syringes.
Tracey, flopping down on the grass. “I don't ever want to go back to school.”
Me, flopping down beside her. “Liar.”
“Not so. This is bliss.”
“You want to catch up on all the gossip.”
“Not as much as this. I want to lie in the grass and smell the daisies, and the dirt, and feel the roots growing. Am I nuts?”
It does smell sweet, it smells earthy and rich and infinitely layered. And it does seem as if I can feel the roots shifting under my shoulders, making themselves comfortable, stretching their way through wet, thick, black earth, branching out in their tiny increments. “Not nuts,” I say “I could stand it if this lasted forever.”
This. Us. Best friends until the last.